Christmas in the Rear -View Mirror

Happily, the Church does not so readily drop the curtain and dismantle the stage on Christmas.

A traditional Christmas market in Europe
A traditional Christmas market in Europe (photo: Pixabay / CC0)

The rhythm of time of Church and state are very different. 

At the grocery store on Monday, two days after Christmas I noticed that, unobtrusively, heart-shaped boxes of Valentine candies had already creeped into one aisle. When I commented about it, my daughter told me that she had just come from a neighborhood pharmacy where a couple of Easter eggs had already appeared.

At work, some of the frenzied efforts of co-workers to put up “holiday decorations” a mere 10 days ago were already gone. In many places, the week between Christmas and New Year is a lull, many public and “nonprofit” institutions on skeletal staffing.

New Year’s Eve will bring one last gust of effort for an evening of revelry, some forced horn blowing when the clock strikes 12, and then a return home. America’s Catholic bishops have already helped reduce the strain by negating Mass obligations for Jan. 1 this year.

  Then, we “return to normal” (whatever “normal” means today). Workplaces will gear up for five days. Schools will resume. Decorations will come down. The always-ahead crowd has already chucked their Christmas trees, while the first days of January will see curbsides full of spent conifers. The colored lights in our neighborhoods will yield to dark winter nights.

All the anticipation, effort, and looking forward of the past weeks (in some commercial cases, months) is gone. One can almost hear Peggy Lee’s question echo: “is that all there is?”

Happily, the Church in some ways does not so readily drop the curtain and dismantle the stage on the Christmas Show. True, America’s Catholic bishops have again amputated the season, turning Twelfth Night — Epiphany on Jan. 6 — into Eighth to Fourteenth Night, depending on the year. But, liturgically, Christmastide extends through the Baptism of Christ, usually the second Sunday of the calendar year, so the festal season does run about 20 days. And, unlike society where many homes have already packed up their Christmas decorations and stores are already pushing chocolates for lovers, most parishes leave their manger and Christmas ornaments around for the whole time.

There are, of course, vestiges of a fuller time of celebration that our Church was once responsible for, even if she doesn’t fully realize it now. Once upon a time it was the custom to leave Christmas decorations up until Candlemas, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on Feb. 2, 40 days after Christmas. And while today’s all-year-round-default called “Ordinary Time” replaces what once were called liturgically “Sundays after Epiphany” (and, thus, an explicit extension of the Christmas mystery), the whole time up until Lent (which, this year, is about as late as it can get, on March 2) was once called “Carnival.” It was a time of parties, dance, get-togethers and even courting (a quaint word) before the ascetic discipline of Lent (which people really observed by not partying or dancing) and the later duties of spring field work set in.

I know we don’t live in an agricultural society but we do live in one that does not know how to celebrate. Yes, we go through the motions, feigning interest but, increasingly, most social gatherings (to the degree people even take part in them) seem marked with the sincere interest of a national day diplomatic reception.

I know there are those thinking, “what world does he live in? Schools may not start next week because of lockdowns. Workplaces may continue virtually. We may be facing another winter of our quarantined discontent.”

I’d ask what world my questioner lives in. Yes, some public schools will not open. But many workplaces outside of the office/technical fields long ago reopened because workplaces cannot remain under multi-year closures and those workers not subsidized by government grants long ago realized the need for a paycheck. None of that’s my point.

My point is that — whether 2022 is “normal” or not — what is abnormal is our truncated concept of celebration. Christmas, the birth of the God-Man, which is the day that changed all human history and in no small measure gave us the society in which we today live, now hardly coasts along in that society for eight days on residual cultural gases before we pack it up and move on.

We prattle about “work-life balance,” and that shibboleth has even acquired some greater vitality since COVID-19 appeared, forcing us to ask whether what has been called “greedy work” — a workplace that progressively encroaches on more and more of a worker’s life — required taming. I’ve previously argued that, in our post-pandemic return to “normal,” we should not restore the all-consuming model of work, especially work in the professions, as a norm. 

But even if we tame the work cookie monster, the “life” side of “work/life” needs balance, and the question of whether we can really “celebrate,” really enjoy, truly “live” remains — and is not answered by a libertarian or liberal “let a thousand lifestyles bloom.”

“Life” cannot be filled with just any content: the number of people who look at their lives with Peggy Lee’s question indicates that. Man wants to participate in real, objective goods which, as the philosopher Germain Grisez once noted, includes “play,” i.e., doing something for its own sake — because one wants to — without further, ulterior motives. 

Play is also an essential part of life. So, too, is celebration, as Josef Pieper noted.

Christmastide and Carnival were once the Church’s contribution to play and celebration. Even if they are bereft of contemporary cultural support and chipped at by focused-on-the-moment bishops, let’s not give up our own rich heritage which also enriches our humanity.

Scrooge resolved to honor and keep Christmas “all the year.” Robert Greving recently wrote “in praise of slow.” Catholics of Christmas and Carnival: you have roughly two months to go.